Pope willing to visit Canada as part of ‘reconciliation process’ with First Nations

Elise Ann Allen
|Senior Correspondent

ROME – On Wednesday the Vatican announced Pope Francis’s intention to visit Canada in a bid to reconcile with indigenous peoples.

In an Oct. 27 communique, the Vatican said, “the Canadian Conference of Catholic Bishops has invited the Holy Father to make an apostolic journey to Canada, also in the context of the long-standing pastoral process of reconciliation with indigenous peoples.”

“His Holiness has indicated his willingness to visit the country on a date to be settled in due course,” the statement said, but offered no further details.

While any papal trip is significant in its own right, a visit to Canada by the leader of the world’s 1.3 billion Catholics would hold monumental symbolic value in light of the Catholic Church’s recent troubles over its past treatment of indigenous peoples.

For years, the Church has faced pressure over its role in Canada’s residential school program for indigenous children, but this pressure turned to outrage over the summer after the remains of 215 children were discovered on the grounds of the Indian Residential School in Kamloops at the end of May.

Founded in 1890, the Kamloops school at one point was Canada’s largest indigenous boarding school and was run by the Catholic Church between 1890 and 1969, when the Canadian government took it over as a day school until its closure in 1978.

At the time when residential schools were still operational in Canada, nearly three-quarters were run by Catholic missionary congregations with the aim of assimilating indigenous children to Canadian culture.

Over the years, these schools gained an infamous reputation as survivors began telling stories of physical and sexual abuse, as well as beatings or other strict corporal punishments when children spoke their native language.

After the discovery at Kamloops, searches were made at other schools, unearthing hundreds more bodies.

Several weeks after the Kamloops discovery, for example, an estimated 751 unmarked graves were uncovered at the former Marieval residential school in Saskatchewan, and on June 30, an additional 182 remains were detected at the site of the old St. Eugene’s Mission Residential School in Cranbrook, B.C., with the use of a ground-penetrating radar. More remains were uncovered as searches continued throughout the summer.

These discoveries sparked massive public outcry and criticism of both the Canadian government, and the Catholic Church, with many Canadians – indigenous, bishops, and political leaders included – calling for the Church to make a formal apology.

Over the years, individual congregations and missionary communities who were historically responsible for residential schools have made apologies, but there has been no apology on an institutional level.

Other church communities that were involved, including the Anglican Church of Canada and the United Church of Canada, were involved as at the institutional level and therefore, when they apologized, they spoke on behalf of the entire church.

When Canada’s Truth and Reconciliation Commission, which operated from 2008-2015, was formed, they acknowledged the “patchwork” apologies of individual Catholic communities were genuine, but had little impact.

In their 58th of 94 Calls to Action at the conclusion of their work, the commission asked the pope specifically “to issue an apology to survivors, their families, and communities for the Roman Catholic Church’s role in the spiritual, cultural, emotional, physical, and sexual abuse of First Nations, Inuit, and Métis children in Catholic-run residential schools.”

Although the Canadian bishops themselves did eventually issue a collective apology after the discovery of the remains over the summer, Pope Francis has not.

He did acknowledge the discoveries in his June 6 Angelus address, assuring of his closeness to those in Canada “who have been traumatized by the shocking news.”

On that occasion, Pope Francis said that the discovery heightens “our awareness of the pain and suffering of the past,” and urged mutual dialogue and respect, saying the discovery of the remains is another opportunity to “turn away from the colonizing model,” including what he has dubbed modern-day “ideological colonization.”

Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau personally asked Pope Francis to consider making such an apology during a visit to the Vatican in 2017.

Several months later, in 2018, Canada’s bishops argued that the pope could not personally apologize for residential schools, since he himself had no personal involvement, despite the fact that he has often been outspoken in condemning injustices faced by other indigenous communities around the world, including the Amazon.

Before his retirement, Pope Benedict XVI met with a group of indigenous former residential school students and victims in 2009, telling them of his “personal anguish” over their suffering.

With the announcement of Pope Francis’s intention to visit Canada, then, there is piqued interest as to whether the pope will indeed issue an apology, and in what forum.

In a statement following Wednesday’s announcement, Assembly of First Nations National Chief RoseAnne Archibald said that when Pope Francis visits Canada, she will welcome him “to issue a long overdue apology to survivors and intergenerational trauma survivors.”

She thanked the Canadian bishops for working to fulfill the TRC’s request for a papal apology and insisted that the Catholic Church “must be accountable and acknowledge their responsibility for the great harm caused by their direct role in the institutions of assimilation and genocide that they ran.”

Archibald urged the church to make “a number of reparations while they are here and in the future,” including the restitution of land to First Nation communities, and the investment of resources into healing initiatives “to ensure support programs and services for survivors and their descendants.”

“Over 100 years of church efforts have resulted in the destruction of the social fabric of First Nations,” she said. “Now, equal time, energy and resources must be made available to rebuild our children’s lives, our families and communities.”

In an Oct. 27 statement following the Vatican’s announcement of a possible papal visit to Canada, the Canadian Catholic Bishops’ Conference (CCCB) voiced gratitude for the pope’s “pilgrimage of healing and reconciliation,” which they said will be preceded by the planned visit of an indigenous delegation in December.

Announced earlier this year amid fierce public outcry over the Kamloops discovery, the delegation will travel to Rome Dec. 17-20, and it will be composed of indigenous residential school survivors, Elders, knowledge keepers, indigenous youth, and members of the Canadian bishops’ conference.

RELATED: Canada bishops organizing ‘pastoral visit’ of indigenous leaders to Vatican

According to the Canadian bishops, this delegation “will have the opportunity to speak to Pope Francis about the timing, focus, and themes in preparation for his future pilgrimage to Canada.”

Bishop Raymond Poisson of Saint-Jérôme, president of the CCCB, said the country’s bishops have long been engaged in discussion with indigenous communities, particularly those affected by residential schools, many of whom have “shared stories about the suffering and challenges that they continue to experience.”

Poisson said the bishops and Canadian indigenous communities have been working with Holy See officials behind the scenes to make a papal trip happen.

To this end, Poisson and other officials of the CCCB met with the Vatican Secretary of State, Italian Cardinal Pietro Parolin, in Rome earlier this month to discuss “next steps” on the journey toward reconciliation with indigenous communities in Canada, and to prepare for the visit of the delegation in December.

“We will invite the delegation of Indigenous survivors, Elders, knowledge keepers, and youth who will meet with Pope Francis to open their hearts to the Holy Father and share both their suffering as well as their hopes and desires for his eventual visit to Canada,” Poisson said, adding that further information about the pope’s visit to Canada as well as the visit of the delegation in December will be announced once they are confirmed.

While the pope has faced mounting pressure to apologize during the visit of the delegation in December, indigenous leaders have also pushed for the pope to travel to Canada to make a formal apology, which they argue would be more meaningful.

RELATED: Canadian Indigenous leaders want papal apology during December visit

Speaking during a June 30 press conference on the December visit of the delegation, Assembly of First Nations National Chief Perry Bellegarde noted that institutional mea culpas for the residential schools have been made by the Anglican Church, the Presbyterian Church, and the United Church of Canada.

The hope for the December visit to Rome, he said, is not only to elicit an apology from the pope, but to invite the pope to come to Canada to apologize on behalf of the Catholic Church at an institutional level.

“This is really part of the truth and healing process for survivors, to hear the apology from the highest position within the Roman Catholic Church, which is the pope. Our hope and prayer,” he said, is “to approach the Vatican and His Holiness and try to bring him to Canada so he can make the apology to Canadian survivors and families here on Canadian soil.”

Follow Elise Ann Allen on Twitter: @eliseannallen

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